By Angelea Selleck
Note from the editors: Before the story of a treasure trove of Nazi-era looted and displaced paintings found in Munich broke out last week, there have been few big scale discoveries and restitutions of art objects displaced preceding, during and after World War II. The world is poised to see what happens to the Cornelius Gurlitt trove. What does happen to the works once they are returned to their rightful owners? The following article describes a recent recovery case.
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At the beginning of 2013, Germany’s top federal appeals court ended a seven-year legal battle by ruling for the restitution of thousands of rare posters to the son of a collector, whose collection was seized by the Nazi’s in World War II. The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe established that Peter Sachs, 75, was the rightful owner of the posters collected by his father, Hans Sachs. The court warned that if the German Historical Museum would keep the posters it would be “akin to perpetuating the crimes of the Nazis” and ultimately requested that the posters be returned to Peter.[i] Having recovered ownership of the collection, Sachs consigned them for a November 2013 sale at Guernsey’s auction company in New York[ii]. As a private individual he is unable to display the collection and make it accessible to a wider public.
The sale will take place 75 years after the posters were seized from Hans Sachs’ home in 1938 on the orders of Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, who wanted them for a museum of his own. The collection was indeed impressive as Hans had been collecting posters since highschool and by his mid-twenties was Germany’s leading private poster collector[iii]. His collection included advertisements for exhibitions, cabarets, movies, political propaganda and consumer products. After the seizure of his posters, Sachs was arrested and deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in north Berlin[iv]. He was released two weeks later and fled to the United States with his family.
After the war, Sachs assumed the collection had been destroyed and accepted compensation of $50,000 in 1961[v]. Years later he learned that part of the collection, 4,344 of about 12,500, had survived and been given to the East Berlin Museum. Sachs’ efforts to arrange a viewing were unsuccessful; he died in 1974, at 92.
The return of Sachs’ collection is not only a success story – as most such cases end rather less fortuitously – but due to the sheer volume of pieces a rather exceptional case. As one might assume, restitution is a very difficult legal process and in recent years many countries have become reluctant to comply with international efforts.
The 1998 Washington Principles, which called for an investigation into cases of plundered art and a fair resolution, called upon international institutions to play a more active role in returning artworks to victims. Unfortunately, the Washington Principles are not enforceable nor do they mandate a particular outcome. A decade letter, the Terezin Declaration echoed similar principles. Both have little legal bite but they have had moral impact on countries, which elicited some changes in policies.
Some countries have made efforts to reach out to victims. Recently, museums in the Netherlands has reviewed their acquisitions since 1933 in an effort to be more transparent and found over a hundred pieces that were likely taken from Jewish owners.[vi]
However, provenance research is a recurring issue that plagues the restitution process and many museums remain reluctant to closely examine what is in their collections[vii]. Thousands of looted artworks in public collections are unresearched and unidentified. While some museums are helpful and proactive others can be passive and obstructionist.[viii]
Recognizing the need for thorough provenance research and increased due diligence dealing with World War II cultural property losses, on October 22, 2013, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP) and the Ciric Law Firm organized a program entitled “Due Diligence in Cultural Heritage Litigation-Is There A Minimum Threshold?” intended “to provide a suggested framework and associated checklist to satisfy due diligence requirements in provenance research for cultural objects.”[ix]
In light of all this, Sachs’ case stands out as one of more successful recent restitutions of Nazi-confiscated artworks or collections.
[i]David Rising, “Hans Sachs Art Collection Seized by Nazis Must Be Returned, Court Orders,” Huffington Post, March 16th 2012. Found at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/16/hans-sachs-collection-nazis_n_1352819.html
[ii] Eve M. Kahn, “Posters Lost to Nazis Are Recovered, and Up For Sale,” New York Times, October 17th 2013. Found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/18/arts/design/posters-lost-to-nazis-are-recovered-and-up-for-sale.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=1&adxnnlx=1383093941-/4Bb8SCF9APtJw0FtKuNvA
[iii]David Rising, “Hans Sachs Posters Seized by Nazis in 1938 Back in Family’s Possession,” Huffington Post, January 17th 2013. Found at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/17/hans-sachs-posters_n_2495902.html
[v] Eve M. Kahn, “Posters Lost to Nazis Are Recovered, and Up For Sale,” New York Times, October 17th 2013. Found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/18/arts/design/posters-lost-to-nazis-are-recovered-and-up-for-sale.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=1&adxnnlx=1383093941-/4Bb8SCF9APtJw0FtKuNvA
[vi] “Dutch Museums Identify 139 Likely Nazi Looted Artworks,” Huffington Post. Found at:
[vii] Jochem Kürten, “Nazi Looted Art Cases Remain Unsolved Mysteries” Deutsche Welle, June 20th 2013. Found at: http://www.dw.de/nazi-looted-art-cases-remain-unsolved-mysteries/a-16863346
[viii] William Cohan, “The Restitution Struggle: Malaise, Indifference, and Frustration,” ARTnews, September 11th, 2013. Found at: http://www.artnews.com/2013/09/11/the-restitution-struggle/